WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, said Tuesday that it was “very likely” that the recession had ended although he cautioned that it could be months before unemployment rates dropped significantly.

“Even though from a technical perspective the recession is very likely over at this point, it’s still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time as many people will still find that their job security and their employment status is not what they wish it was,” Mr. Bernanke said in response to a question about unemployment trends. “That’s a challenge for us and all policy makers going forward.”

The cautiously optimistic assessment came at the end of a speech at the Brookings Institution observing a year after a market crisis that was precipitated by the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Shortly before the speech, the Commerce Department reported that retail sales had surged in August as consumers swapped old cars for new ones under the “cash-for-clunkers” program. The increase, by a seasonally adjusted 2.7 percent rate over the previous month, widely surpassed analysts’ expectations and was the largest monthly increase since January 2006.

Mr. Bernanke said the consensus of economic forecasters was for moderate economic growth for the remainder of this year and next, particularly as credit markets thaw, consumer confidence takes time to heal and the federal government begins to unwind spending and lending programs intended to mend the economy.

“The general view of forecasters is that growth in 2010 will be moderate, less than you might expect given the depth of the recession,” Mr. Bernanke said, because of several issues, including continuing financial and credit problems, deleveraging by households and the need to end the economic stimulus programs. All these elements will “make the 2010 recovery moderate, in particular not much faster than the underlying growth rate of the economy,” he added.

Business cycles are officially dated by a committee of economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research. The committee often spends many months sifting through economic trends before declaring the beginning and end dates of a recession. The latest recession began 12 months before it was officially declared in December 2008 by the committee.

For policy makers in Washington, a more significant question than the actual date of the end of the current recession will be when to begin unwinding the myriad lending and guarantee programs that were hastily created in response to the crisis. Officials at the Federal Reserve have already begun to consider the question.

Mr. Bernanke and other officials, including the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, have warned that removing the programs too early could lead to another round of problems. Historians now generally agree that, during the Great Depression, the early withdrawal of government programs in the 1930s led to deeper economic problems throughout that decade.

On the other hand, some analysts have warned that waiting too long could fuel significant price increases and lead to a return of corrosive levels of inflation.

The unwinding of the various spending programs and lower-interest rate policies of the Fed is not likely to be popular because, among other things, it could increase the cost of borrowing. That also threatens to increase the borrowing costs for the federal government, which already faces record deficits. And policy makers will have to confront decisions on retrenching government lending and spending programs just as lawmakers are facing midterm elections next year.

In his speech, a version of which he has made before, Mr. Bernanke defended the decisions by the central bank and other policy makers throughout the crisis and said that any hesitation in taking the emergency steps that were ultimately pursued by the Fed, the federal government and foreign powers could have led to a far steeper economic decline.

“Without these speedy and forceful actions, last October’s panic would likely have continued to intensify, more major financial firms would have failed, and the entire global financial system would have been at serious risk,” Mr. Bernanke said. “We cannot know for sure what the economic effects of these events would have been, but what we know about the effects of financial crises suggests that the resulting global downturn could have been extraordinarily deep and protracted.”

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